Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Steven Beacom: Turn jeers into cheers... then dare to dream

The returning Kyle Lafferty can help Northern Ireland rediscover their goalscoring touch tonight

It's been a depressing week for Northern Ireland fans. Still feeling downhearted about the humiliating 4-1 defeat in Estonia, they had to digest the news that the retiring Aaron Hughes was injured and wouldn't play in his Windsor Park farewell.

There were further withdrawals, including Manchester United's Jonny Evans, and then gifted young Newcastle defender Shane Ferguson failed to answer an international call.

On top of all that, there's been the constant speculation about Nigel Worthington's future as manager. We could do with a lift.

Stephen Ferris and Rory Best won't face Wales in rugby's World Cup quarter-final until tomorrow morning our time, so until then it's up to our footballers to provide it.

Enough depression. Let's dream for a few moments.

Northern Ireland could be competing in the Euro 2012 finals. Far-fetched? Yes, but run with it. Imagine, it's easy if you try, Italy beating Serbia in Belgrade tonight.

The Serbs may have defeated our boys home and away, but they have been inconsistent in this qualifying campaign and are by no means sure to claim the point which would mathematically end Northern Ireland hopes.

Second placed Serbia can't play for a draw to make the play-offs because Estonia are right on their tail, so when they are going for the win, the canny Italians might just snatch a goal and hold on for a 1-0 win ‘Catenaccio' style.

Still with me? That would make things a lot more interesting at Windsor Park tonight, because with a home victory over Estonia, Northern Ireland would enter the final round of games next Tuesday needing to win in Italy and hoping for Slovenia to beat Serbia to make the play-offs.

The latter is a distinct possibility, the former not so much, but by then the already qualified Azzurri might not be bothered.

Sure, it will require a miracle, but what if other results go for us? Wouldn't it be a crying shame if in turn we didn't look after ourselves?

The players also owe the fans a big performance following that horrendous mistake-ridden night in Tallinn and, after backing the beleaguered boss off the pitch all week, they need to deliver for him on it.

I believe we can do it. Lee Camp is a better goalkeeper than he showed last time out. Defensively, despite losing Hughes and Evans, Worthington has Premier League-class operators in Chris Baird, Craig Cathcart and Gareth McAuley to call upon.

In midfield there's plenty of talent — Steve Davis, Sammy Clingan, Grant McCann, Chris Brunt, Niall McGinn and Paddy McCourt — while up front Kyle Lafferty can show his increasing worth with record goalscorer David Healy and Warren Feeney waiting in the wings.

Dare to dream. Win the game. And turn the recent jeers from supporters into cheers. Let's end this campaign on a high.

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